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After Brain Surgery, Nature Gave Her Peace. Now, Crystal Gail Welcome Gets Others Outside.

After finding her love for the trail, Welcome used hiking to process some of the most challenging moments of her life.

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After a long battle against a rare brain disease, Crystal Gail Welcome, a 41-year-old from Jacksonville, Florida, took up running as a spontaneous celebration of her health and perseverance. Then a friend invited her on a short dayhike, where she had a profound encounter with, well, a tree (tale below). She later went on to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail and other cross-country jaunts. Now, Welcome seeks to bring the healing power of hiking to those who need it most.

Backpacker: Tell us about your brain.

CGW: I have a rare brain disease called pseudotumor cerebri, which produces an increase of pressure in my brain. I had many, many surgeries to implant shunts, remove shunts, and try alternate shunts. None worked. Then, in 2014, a doctor recommended a neuromodulator—an implant that regulates the amount of spinal fluid in my brain.

BP: And you manage to hike with that implant?

CGW: I’m currently section-hiking the Great Western Loop in three parts. [Ed. note: The GWL is a 6,875-mile mash-up of the Pacific Crest, Pacific Northwest, Continental Divide, Grand Enchantment, and Arizona trails.] I started last summer and hiked 1,200 miles, and now I’m preparing for part two. I’m section-hiking it so I can leave the trail and recharge my neurological implant every week or two. If I have to use more power or a higher frequency to control my pain—this usually occurs at higher altitudes—then my recharge intervals are more frequent.

BP: How did you get into thru-hiking?

CGW: Nine weeks after my surgery to implant the neuromodulator I ran a half marathon, just because I could. After that, a friend took me on a short cool-down hike in a nature preserve outside of Atlanta. It was buggy, and I was like, “This is not fun.” Then we came to a brook with a tree next to it. In that moment—and I know this sounds silly—I felt so connected to this tree. I thought, “I’m so like this tree. I have roots and branches. All of life is like this tree.” I decided I wanted to experience more of this, so I went to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

BP: What was your experience on the PCT like?

CGW: I hiked about 600 miles and the trail was therapy for me. Therapy I didn’t know I needed or how to get otherwise. I knew I had to introduce others to this feeling. Once I got off the trail, I went back to school to get my Masters in Adventure Education and Adventure Therapy at Prescott College. I graduated in 2020, the year of Covid and George Floyd.

BP: Have you felt accepted as a Black thru-hiker?

CGW: Race frequently comes up. I am asked why other BI and POC aren’t hiking, as if I am responsible for solving racism in the outdoors. I am also questioned as to how I can afford to hike and/or looked upon with suspicion when I have nice gear, yet other BI and POC hikers never ask me this question. I was the only BI and POC hiker amongst a group of hikers near Mt. Whitney who was asked to show a permit by a ranger. The underlying message is: “What are you doing here?”

BP: What else are you up to?

CGW: I’m living with my partner in rural Minnesota where there aren’t a lot of Black people, let alone Black queer people. After moving here, I thru-hiked the Superior Hiking Trail then went straight to the George Floyd Memorial site with my pack and all my gear. I left my trekking poles at the memorial site as a gesture. They gave me stability and support on my hike, and that’s what we need as a country. I also started a nonprofit to get children of incarcerated mothers outside. Outside, you feel comforted like you’re with a mother. Mother Nature, right?

BP: And this all started with one buggy hike.

CGW: Yep—and that tree! Things are different in nature. We are more connected.

You can follow Crystal Gail Welcome on Instagram: @footprintsforchange

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